Design as the New Management

Business gurus love buzzwords. One of the buzzwords that’s got a lot of attention in the past few years is “design,” or more specifically, “design thinking.”

Even as an admirer of the principles behind design thinking, I expected the hype to peak in the late ’00s. But instead of fading it’s actually finding a wider audience and pushing deeper into more industries and organizations. Harvard Business Review put it on the cover last September.

So what’s going on here?

First, I think what we’re seeing is not just some fad but a response to structural shifts in industries and organizations. At risk of oversimplifying it, the rise of design corresponds with the rise of software — especially software as a service — and the gradual and continuous evolution of processes and organizations around it.

Unlike hardware products, or even packaged software, software provided as a service over a network can be updated and delivered to users on the fly. Over the past decade, companies that figured out how to manage that continuous delivery process have had a competitive advantage over those that made customers wait six or eighteen months for improvements. By the time the latter company releases a new version of their product, the former company has already found new things to improve based on customer feedback.

Meanwhile, companies that weren’t initially in the software business have realized the value and importance of augmenting their products with software and other services. GE’s launch of a digital division is a prominent recent example. As a result, software (or “technology”) is no longer “an industry” in quite the same way that it was at the dawn of the PC era, so much as it’s a whole layer spreading out across virtually every other industry. Transportation, retail, hospitality, education, and entertainment have all been transformed (or “disrupted”) by software companies, and the incumbents have been forced to follow.

And all of that stuff needs to be designed — and I don’t just mean making surfaces pretty and usable but making sure these increasingly complex systems work together to serve increasingly nuanced needs. And those systems aren’t just the products and services themselves but the processes, teams, organizations, and business models around them. These need to be designed and redesigned as well.

We could quibble over what’s really “design” vs. what’s “architecture” vs. what’s “management” or whatever else, but any form of deliberate change is within the dictionary definition of design. Let’s not overthink it. More time and energy is lost arguing about the definition of design than will ever be lost misapplying it.

So now I look at it this way. What if management as a practice isn’t just temporarily borrowing from design, but some large part of it is actually becoming [or being displaced by] design? I don’t mean that everybody is a designer, but that a growing number of people in organizations are spending more of their time doing design activities. Calling a few of them designers is less weird or inaccurate than what most are already called, whether it’s something generic like manager, analyst or strategist, or something more contrived.

Management as a practice only really emerged after industrialized organizations demanded large numbers of managers simply to operate. Now we have another sort of industrial revolution that’s automating a lot of the work managers have traditionally done, like monitoring, reporting, coordinating, and even low-level decision-making. Needs are changing.

In the future we’ll spend a smaller proportion of time managing these systems and more time designing them. We might not call the people who do this “designers,” but in an important way design is slowly becoming the new management.

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